Report of 2nd Saheli visit to Gujarat

Newsletter May - Aug 2002

When the second group of Sahelis went to Gujarat in the first week of June, this time to Ahmedabad, things were somewhat different from late March when the first group visited Baroda. While the violence was more sporadic, peace had not quite returned. While attempts were on to rebuild lives in the aftermath of the horrifying devastation, the long term impact of the schisms were looming large.

As a constituent member of Aman Ekta Manch, we had decided to assess the situation of the survivors of the violence - in terms of relief, rehabilitation, justice, health etc. to understand immediate needs, and to help focus campaigns and action plans. At the same time, we also decided to help streamline the work of the volunteers going to Gujarat. Hence, we along with groups already working in the field identified camps in Ahmedabad that needed urgent attention in terms of basic facilities and infrastructure and prioritised them as work areas for volunteers groups.

By late May, the process of disbursement of ‘compensation’ by the government of Gujarat was also under way. By all accounts, the compensation being handed out to survivors was an arbitrary and paltry sum, an affront to the cumulative losses they had suffered - mental, physical and material. Therefore, an urgent need was expressed by groups in Ahmedabad to evolve a comprehensive questionnaire that would help arrive at a holistic estimate of peoples’ losses, and to see it against the compensation received, if at all people were receiving it. This too, we did and subsequent teams of volunteers have been carrying this work forward.

Besides this, we also focussed our attention on the following issues of concern:

1. Given the nature and scale of the violence against women, young girls and children, what measures, if any, had the State and Central governments adopted?

Before we recount our investigations in this regard, a little background is essential. In late April, the National Commission for Women (NCW), finally came out with its report on the genocide in Gujarat, titled, “Report of the Committee Constituted by the NCW to assess the Status and Situation of Women and Girl Children in Gujarat in the Wake of Communal Disturbance”. In response to this report, in a strongly worded letter, Saheli raised the following points:

* Failure to take cognisance of the evidence that the attack against the Muslim community in Gujarat was orchestrated, systematic and pre-meditated.

* Failure to identify the perpetrators of the violence, while our own, as well as the findings of other fact-finding teams, and media reports, clearly indict the armed militia of the VHP, Bajrang Dal and RSS.

* Absolving the State Government of any responsibility for this genocide.

* The dismissal by Ms Nafisa Hussain, member NCW, of an independent report by the Women’s Panel as an ‘exaggeration’, and Chairperson Poornima Advani’s, silence on the subject, sends unnerving signals to women of the minority community who have been subjected to gang-rape, torture, extreme sexual violence, mutilation and murder. NCW’s statement not only negates this factual reality but is also dangerous in so far as it comes from an apex body entrusted with the welfare of women.

Consequent to this letter, Saheli with members of Jagori and former NCW member, Syeda Hameed, met Dr Advani to discuss several pressing issues with regard to women survivors in the relief camps in Gujarat, and to impress upon NCW the urgency to get its own recommendations implemented. As a result of this meeting, the following demands were agreed upon:

    • Immediate sanitation needs to be addressed

    • Immediate setting up of a Women’s Cell as per recommendation No 22 of the NCW report

    • Trauma counselling for victims

    • Identifying the schemes for women in the Central Assistance of Rs 150 crore declared by the PM

    • NCW should ensure membership in the Committee for Monitoring the Central Assistance.

Consequent to our interactions with the NCW in Delhi, we decided to follow up with the Women & Child Department, Gujarat, in Gandhinagar. The main points of our meeting were:

a) Hygiene, sanitation etc, even with regard to women, is NOT under the purview of the WCD. It is merely the responsibility of the Municipal Corporation of Ahmedabad. There is NO provision/allocation under which the department can fulfil ‘special needs of women’ like sanitary towels etc.

b) No new scheme/programme has been launched, either by the Centre or the State, for women and/or children who have been displaced, dispossessed, and deprived of homes, families and security, much less for those who have been raped, assaulted or mutilated. Nor is any special scheme likely to be sancitioned, according to highly placed officials in the WCD. Any relief work, counselling and rehabilitation efforts under way, are being carried out from within existing programmes like the ICDS for additional nutrition for pregnant and lactating women, Kishori Shakti for nutritional supplementation for young girls, Anganwadi for relief and counselling, Swadhar Scheme for rehabilitation and livelihood, Widow Pension Schemes, NORAD Scheme for vocational training, etc.

c) Officials expressed their constraint to apply for any special programmes from the government for riot victims as they felt certain that the present government would not sanction any such scheme.

d) No specific allocation has been made from the PM’s Special Fund of Rs 150 crores for women & children.

e) A Women’s Cell was set up to look into all types of civil and criminal complaints that women may have, and to help them get redressal.

It is clear that after all this time, the State and Central governments have failed to initiate even one short or long term programme to rehabilitate the people. All that the state is offering is meagre aid to the community-run camps, and shockingly low sums of compensation. And of late, even the relief camps are being closed down in an attempt to present an air of ‘normalcy’.

While the Saheli team was in Ahmedabad, the Women’s Cell was set up, so we looked at its functioning, and these were our observations, which we also raised in our Press Release of 9th June, titled, ‘The Four-Day Farce of the Women’s Cell.’

    • The recent Women’s Cell set up to specifically look into the complaints of women and children seems to have made a mockery of the demands of women’s groups and the recommendations of the National Commission of Women. The Cell, which was to look into all types of civil and criminal complaints, functioned only for 4 days for 2 hours everyday.

    • Information of the Women’s Cell was, by the admission of the members of the Cell, given only through newspapers and television. No notices were put up at the camps, so not surprisingly, we found that none of the camp organisers we met were aware of the existence of the Cell, much less the women in the camps!

    • The Cell was made inaccessible by the fact that instead of reaching out to the women, the Cell chose to sit at the Circuit House Annexe, without any signboards to indicate its location.

    • What makes the callousness of the state is even more apparent as the members of the Cell had no clear plan of how the women who did finally reach them were going to follow up their complaints once the Cell stops functioning after four days. Most of the women we spoke to in the camps had no resources for their basic needs, much less to reach such a far-flung area. And given the experience of the last many months, the people just did not have any faith in the state machinery, which had failed to protect them in the first instance.

    • Press reports corroborate the fact that the Cell has not received a single complaint relating to the sexual violence that women have been subjected to. Yet, instead of addressing how to re-build faith with the women of Gujarat, the response of the members of the Cell was merely that the women were ‘shy’ to speak of these horrors. `````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````

    • On our return to Delhi, we made numerous attempts to set up a meeting with Dr Advani of the NCW to update her of the situation on the ground, but till date, no appointment has been given.

2. Given the role of the police in the violence, what is the possibility of justice delivery?

As numerous reports and fact-finding missions have shown, the people of Gujarat who have suffered immeasurably also have little hope for justice. Active participation of the police forces in the violence has been compounded by gross misrepresentations in the FIRs, widespread falsification of reports, failure to mention those named by victims, collective FIRs, etc.

Since the government of Gujarat has made some changes at the top of the police hierarchy, we went to discuss how the police forces planned to correct some of the damage that had been done and bring the guilty to book. We met ACP NGO Co-ordination, Mr Keshav Kumar and ACP Zone 2 (which includes Naroda Patiya and Gulbarga Society) Satish Verma. But our meeting with them did little to assure us that the victims of the genocide in Gujarat had any hope for justice. The main issues discussed were:

a) False FIRs: ACP Verma was candid about how problematic the existing FIRs are and claimed that the department was working hard to ensure that some of them were executable. Yet, when faced with the accusation that in the Gulbarga case (which included Ehsan Jaafrey’s death) many of the victims have been chargesheeted (including Jaafrey) while those known to be guilty have been spared, he had no answer except that they had ‘no jurisdiction over the chargesheets, since everything is now in the hands of the Crime Branch’.

b) Rebuilding faith: Despite all the rhetoric, the police has set up no mechanism, nor made any effort to rebuild faith with affected people, to try and encourage them to step out and speak up... much less to try and undo the damage already done. All they have done is set up a desk at the Police Commissioner’s Office to ‘ensure that people get copies of their FIRs within 24 hours’. And that was cited to us as a major step, as was the ‘initiative’ of the setting up of the post of ACP NGO Co-ordination. “This has never been done before, so you must recognise how important it is,” Keshav Kumar told us, referring to the post that he now occupies.

c) Sexual violence against women. Of specific concern to us was the gross under-reporting of crimes against women, and sexual violence on women, girls and children. While acknowledging this to be true, ACP Verma said that he had followed up several cases mentioned in various independent fact-finding reports, but the women ‘had denied’ that such crimes had occurred. When he was confronted with the argument that in the face of the conduct of the police during the violence, they can scarcely expect the women to trust them ... he shocked us by calmly stating that the police force of Gujarat was no longer communal.

d) Communalisation of the force: Both officials claimed that since there had been changes at the top, the force would ‘naturally be de-communalised’. Yet, they were forced to admit instances where constables and other police functionaries were still harassing Muslims in their areas, either when they were trying to return to their homes, or even during government surveys of damage to their property. But even in the face of such evidence, there are no corrective or punitive measures being put into force against erring functionaries.

3. Law and order is another crucial issue, especially in the light of the scheduled Rath Yatra of various Hindu formations on 12th July.

The two police officers, both senior functionaries of the state, repeatedly reminded us that they were working for a government whose ‘ideology and philosophy was well known’. So, while asserting that the violence was now over, and that normalcy was well on its way back to Gujarat, they were compelled to admit that they had NO hope of stalling the Rath Yatra that has traditionally been an assertion of power for many political and religious leaders. They could not hope to even re-route Yatra even though it passes through the communally sensitive areas. ACP Verma said, ‘There will be anything upto 5 lakh people... and all it will take is a spark. It’s a bombshell ... and we are just waiting for it to explode.”

As we go to the press (in the first week of July), pressure from various groups and political parties, and it is believed, from the administrative cadres of Gujarat has compelled the Prime Minster to insist that Chief Minister Narendra Modi ‘indefinitely postpone’ his Gaurav Yatra, a Rally of Pride that was to be flagged off by the Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani. But 12th July, the day of the traditional Rath Yatra looms on the horizon. And nothing in the conduct of either the State or the Central government holds any promise of peace. And all the while, the Muslims of Gujarat die a little more each day - of fear, and segregation, and hunger. Unless sustained campaigns for peace and secularism widen their reach... there is no hope to prevent the nation from rabid Hinduism and nationalistic jingoism.